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Caste

Bihar Caste Survey: The Who’s Who in the Data | Gorkan

Here, we are talking about the extinction of a caste.

Beyond politics, the Bihar caste survey is a revolutionary document.

A public document, the first ever after 1931, allowing for people to stand up and be counted.

We go down to the wire, on what each of the numbers unveiled mean.

Who are the people referred to by percentages in the survey?

Today we look at Gorkan (0 people).

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Were castes created before religion? Or was it religion that came first? This is not a very complicated question because occupations came into existence before either of them. A sense of community developed among humans as a result of their work. For example, agriculture is a social profession in which people of all castes are involved. No one can do farming alone. Initially agriculture was a profession adopted by everyone but segregation also took place on its basis.

Illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty

Here, we are not talking about the creation but the extinction of a caste. There are many castes mentioned in the report of the last public All India Caste Census conducted in 1931 which no longer exist. At least they do not exist in Bihar, as revealed by the caste-based survey of 2022 released by Bihar government. One of these castes groups is the Gorkan which is missing in the report of the Bihar government.

It is a caste which has exactly the same status in Islam as the Dom caste group does in Hinduism. The way the deceased in Hindu religion are believed to be ‘liberated’ only through the fire ignited at the hands of someone belonging to the Dom caste, the dead in Islam are laid to rest owing to the labour of a Gorkan.

Etymologically, gorkan is a Persian word where gor means grave and kan is a suffix for digger. Gorkan are gravediggers. The moment someone dies, a Gorkan is the first to be informed. He digs the grave at the place specified by the relatives of the deceased. But their work is not over with just digging graves. They are the last to leave after a deceased person has been buried as they have to fill the grave and level it. 

There is no discrimination in Islam in terms of religion but there is segregation based on social status. For example, Ashraf are those who have land, property and prestige. They include Sheikh, Syed, Mughal and Pathan. The second are Azlaf which are communities offering various services such as carpenters (barhai), barbers (naayi), tailors (idrisi), dyers (rangrez), etc. One might equate them with the backward classes in the Indian constitutional system. There is no stigma of untouchability associated with these communities but the third category of Arzal communities is treated disparagingly even today. They include Lalbeggi, Halalkhor and Gorkan.

However, the people of Gorkan community are no longer there in Bihar, at least not according to the statistics in the survey. Does it mean the caste has become extinct? If yes, then who digs graves now?

The fact is that Gorkans are still there but the changing economy has forced them to switch professions. Earlier, the Gorkan community used to get religious protection and thrived on charity. As long as this system was in place, they stuck with their identity. But with time, this protection ended and other castes took over the task of digging graves, primarily the Nutt community. This is also one of the interesting castes of Bihar. They are both Hindu and Muslim. For example, at present in Bihar, the population of Hindu Nutts is 1,05,368 and that of Muslim Nutts is 61,629.

It is difficult to say whether the people of Gorkan community have changed their caste after changing their profession like the members of the Nutt caste. But this possibility cannot be ruled out.

Translated from Hindi by Naushin Rehman. Read the Hindi original here.

Read earlier parts of the series on the following communities by clicking on their names: Ghasi | Santrash | Madaria | Koeri/Kushwaha | Chaupal | Nai/Hajjaam | Pasi | Rangrez | Chamar.

The series is available in Hindi here and in Urdu, here.